Restoring a dream: For local firms, Boldt Castle continue to inspire and challenge

An image of the main staircase as it was found prior to restoration is held in comparison to the completed staircase being admired by visitors to the castle. Photo by Amanda Morrison.

It was 1977, and the picture was bleak.

Boldt Castle had just been given to the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority by the Edward John Noble foundation, which had itself purchased the property from millionaire George C. Boldt’s children. New York State had already declined the property, saying it would be too much work to repair and maintain, and the castle had been sitting empty and unfinished ever since being abandoned after the death of George Boldt’s wife in 1904. Vandals had defaced much of the interior with graffiti, and the original stone structures were crumbling or gutted by fire.

Fast-forward to the present day. In the 35 years since it changed hands, Boldt Castle has attracted more than 6 million visitors and become a popular site for weddings, school groups and special events. The outlying structures, including a yacht house, dovecote, gazebo and children’s playhouse, have been restored to George Boldt’s original vision, and many of the rooms inside the castle have been transformed as well.

“It’s been a resounding success,” said Shane K. Sanford, director of Boldt facilities, operations and maintenance. “It certainly has had a marked impact on the region’s tourism industry, and it’s been a tremendous asset to the Thousand Islands.”

A contractor chips away a section of the roof on Alster Tower that is in need of repair. Photo by Amanda Morrison.

The business of achieving that success was and continues to be an involved one. In the case of Boldt Castle, historic renovation and preservation has been going on for more than three decades at the cost of millions of dollars. Experts in everything from masonry and plasterwork to stained glass and steel have been consulted, and countless hours have gone into the unusual task of rehabilitating a structure that was never finished in the first place.

In 1977, one of the first tasks was to decide which parts of the castle would be preserved — maintained in their current condition — and which would be restored or brought back to their condition at a certain point in history. For example, restoration of an original decorative terra cotta detail might involve recasting it or filling in missing chunks; preservation would entail keeping it in its current damaged state and perhaps adding a sealer to prevent against further deterioration.

“In the case of Boldt Castle, preserving would not necessarily help the economy. It wouldn’t give a place for tourists to come to visit,” said Edward G. Olley Jr., principal and director of business development at GYMO Architecture, Engineering & Land Surveying. “To preserve is not always economically feasible.”

To help the architects draw lines between restoration and preservation, extensive research was conducted in area libraries and historical societies to determine how the castle would have appeared when it was abandoned in 1904 and how it might have looked if it had been fully completed.

Architects also consulted drawings in the Library of Congress, old photographs and studies of the castle and even the original property manager’s correspondence, found in boxes in the yacht house. At the turn of the century, the Thousand Islands region had been a major destination spot for the nouveau riche of New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, so those cities’ newspapers often printed information about projects like Boldt Castle in their society pages.

“You try to get as much information as you can before you step on the site,” said Rick W. Tague, president at Bernier, Carr & Associates. “Postcards are a huge resource, especially for an area like this. …You would have these wonderful souvenir guides that had pictures of each island, and of course Boldt Castle was a big one.”

After conducting research, workers visited the site and began an inventory of existing conditions and materials on Heart Island. Many items were found scattered throughout Boldt Castle – a door in one crate, its molding in another, and its doorknobs and hinges in a third – but many more still were missing. Experts also conducted meticulous evaluations of the buildings, taking underwater photographs of the powerhouse’s foundations and literally rappelling down the sides of the children’s playhouse to examine every inch for structural deterioration.

[Editor’s note: This is a truncated version of this story. For the full version, please see NNY Business in print or subscribe.]

Gabrielle Hovendon is a former Watertown Daily Times reporter and freelance writer who lives in Watertown. Contact her at ghovendon@gmail.com.